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Alice Walton’s Bleeding Heart: A Paean to “Donor’s Intent”

Alice Walton at the Crystal Bridges Construction Site

I am not one of those who have criticized Alice Walton for buying important works from the collections of cultural institutions. When NY Times chief art critic Michael Kimmelman blasted her for “raiding the New York Public Library in 2005 for a civic landmark, Asher B. Durand‘s ‘Kindred Spirits,” I wrote:

She didn’t “raid” the library; the work was put on the market and she bought it. The library, not Walton, was to blame.

But now, Alice has exceeded the limits of my tolerance.

That’s because in her letter to Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper, informing him of her desire to purchase a half-share of Fisk University’s entire Stieglitz Collection, she tried to wrap herself in an ill-fitting cloak—that of a stalwart defender of donor intent:

As an art collector, and as founder of Crystal Bridges American Art Museum, I understand the importance of honoring a donor’s intent….The “Radiator Building” and Hartley paintings are critical parts of the [Stieglitz] Collection and the Collection will cease to exist if these two paintings are separated [through sales] from the Collection. Such an event would be a tragedy of historical significance.

There was probably far more regrettable “historical significance” attached to the New York Public Library’s sale of the Durand to Walton, and it was surely contrary to the donor’s intent: The daughter of writer William Cullen Bryant, one of the two subjects (along with his friend, painter Thomas Cole) of “Kindred Spirits,” specifically wrote, apropos her 1904 donation of the painting to the library, that she took particular pleasure in the appropriateness of the library’s site—the eponymous Bryant Park, where, as she noted, it would “be more at home than anywhere else.”

The donor of the Stieglitz Collection to Fisk—Georgia O’Keeffe—intended for it to remain at the university in Nashville, not to spend half the time in Bentonville, Arkansas, the site of Walton’s planned museum. Alice’s concept of “donor intent” is self-servingly selective.

Collecting desirable works that, appropriately or not, appear on the market is Walton’s right. But the pose of crusader for donor intent ill becomes the acquisitive Wal-Mart heiress.

an ArtsJournal blog